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Customers venture back inside to eat, drink

Jose Velarde, one of the owners of El Toro Bravo and other local eateries, prepares for Saturday business. He recently received city permission to build this outdoor patio for the El Toro Bravo restaurant. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Hard-hit local businesses happy for change in health orders

Local food and drink establishment owners and workers say they are happy to welcome customers back indoors, even if the number allowed remains fairly modest.

“It is great to see customers inside again and hear their voices,” said Anne Baker, the owner of Stellar Coffee at 315 N. Main St. “It is wonderful.”

Some also are expressing concern about another spike in COVID numbers.

“Personally, I think it is a little too soon,” said Anna Altamirano, a server and cashier with La Gran Victoria on 401 N. Richardson Ave. “But also people to have to work, and it is convenient to us. So it is 50-50 for me.”

A change in New Mexico public health orders took effect Saturday, and one of the changes allows food and drink establishments to reopen their dining areas to 25% of their indoor capacity.

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After the state required all businesses in New Mexico that were labeled “non-essential” to shut down March 24, restaurants and cafes were restricted to take-out and delivery. They were allowed to offer indoor service again June 1 at 50% of their building capacity.

But after COVID numbers statewide increased in the weeks following Memorial Day weekend, the state again barred indoor service for food and drink establishments on July 13. For the past six weeks, food and drink businesses have been allowed to offer only take-out, delivery and outdoor dining, as permitted by their licenses. Saturday was the first day people could eat and drink inside again, and they could be seen at local businesses.

“I am feeling relief,” said Baker, “but I do still believe we need to have an abundance of caution and take the virus seriously so we do not have to close down again. I hope that people will follow the rules, and maybe we can stay open.”

She said she understands the rationale for the state mandating the 25% occupancy levels.

“I think we should just follow the rules so that we can remain open rather than have to close down again,” she said. “Closing is really hard, so let’s avoid that.”

Baker’s view about being grateful for some relaxation of the orders was shared by Jose Velarde.

He and his family own El Toro Bravo restaurant at 102 S. Main St., as well as El Toro Bravo Bakery and El Pollo Bravo, just around the corner on West First Street. They’ve been in business for more than 30 years.

He said El Pollo Bravo is a take-out spot anyway, so it has been doing steady business even during the indoor dining prohibitions. But El Toro Bravo had a more difficult time, since it is meant to offer an indoor dining experience, with beers, margaritas and other drinks.

He constructed an outdoor patio that opened Aug. 22 and has been working to get the word out to his customers about it.

Now with both the patio and the indoor service, he think business can begin to pick up.

“For me, something is better than nothing,” he said. “Now we will have enough space, with 25% plus the patio.”

According to the state health orders, restaurant patios are permitted to serve at 75% capacity with approved licenses and structures.

A social media page for the New Mexico Restaurant Association was showing a state industry that had a range of emotions and thoughts about the change in the state order. The association was one of eight entities that included bars, restaurants and hotels that participated in a lawsuit against state officials over the July decision to reinstate the indoor dining ban.

The association and other plaintiffs successfully received a temporary restraining order against the indoor ban in state district court in Eddy County. But the state appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which immediately reinstated the indoor seating prohibition until it could hear arguments, which it did on Wednesday. The Supreme Court then decided in favor of the state. A day later, the state changed several provisions of its health orders, including the one about indoor dining.

The association wrote in a social media post that the court decision “reiterates the despair our industry faces during this pandemic.” But they also posted the next day that businesses are “happy to be reopened at all.”

The national restaurant industry has experienced more job and income losses than any other in the U.S. economy, according the National Restaurant Association.

It conducted a survey of 6,500 business owners in April and found that two out of three employees, about 8 million people, had lost their jobs. They were expecting industry-wide losses for 2020 of $240 billion.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.